COVID-19's Mask Pollution: Consumption
Updated: Mar 20
This is the second article of a four-part series entitled COVID-19’s Mask Pollution about face masks pollution and, amongst other concerns, the impact personal protective equipment (PPE) is inflicting in the environment, specifically the ocean.
COVID-19’s Mask Pollution will be mainly based on the report, Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution, published by Hong-Kong based marine conservation organisation OceansAsia.
In this week’s article, we are going to cover the rise in single-use plastic consumption, what lobbyists for the plastic industry have been trying to do and what are face masks made of.
So, let’s jump right to it.
We have been relying on plastic packaging for a long time now and unfortunately, the pandemic has not been providing much assistance to turn that around. As a matter of fact, it has been doing the exact opposite intensifying the plastic crisis.
Going to the supermarket has never been more of an inconvenience than it is at the present moment. Masked and sanitised became our two top priorities before, during and after a grocery outing. The walking in the building alone became less about looking for new products to get home and try and more about not trying to get sick and you know…
Among numerous new rules, food shopping came with an unspoken one of “do not touch it unless you want to buy, and if you do touch it, careful”. Along with this, it came the undeniable preference for individually packed fruit and vegetables, considering it would be safer and more hygienic.
The report - we are basing our articles on - chooses the example of Italy, which we have mentioned as being one of the most disrupted countries by COVID-19, and where the simple purchase of packaged oranges in the first week of March 2020, increased over 111%.
With restaurants on shutdown or working with a delivery-only system, takeaway became the number one way to get a warm ready-to-go meal during lockdown.
Due to quarantine, social distancing or other restrictions, takeaway food became more successful than ever yet with this success came a lot of waste, in particular plastic waste.
Greeners Action, an environmental group, estimates that in Hong Kong 101 million pieces of single-use plastic - cutlery and food containers - were being discarded every week in April 2020; in comparison to the previous year when numbers rounded 46 million pieces.
Another example was reported by the Thailand Environment Institute which describes an increase from 1,500 tonnes to 6,300 tonnes of plastic waste, per day.
When it comes to medical waste, even though the probability of it going astray is much lower, it does not hurt to look at numbers the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment put out. They estimate Wuhan’s hospital when compared to normal times, produced more 200 tonnes of waste daily at the peak of the outbreak.
Also, Frost & Sullivan – an American consulting firm - predicted that “the United States could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months.”
Because plastic pollution cannot be considered a brand new problem, there were already several initiatives in place to help the reduction of single-use plastics.
However, we as consumers do hold a lot of power on our hands, and during these dire times have been consuming more and more. Whether for sanitary purposes like our must-have little bottles of hand sanitiser or the understandable fear of cross-contamination from reusable bags and containers. Involuntarily, we have been giving a significant push to the plastic industry.
Attempts to ban, withdrawn, postponed, and roll back some of those initiatives have not been letting lobbyists take a break.
Exhibit A: European Plastics Converters (EuPC), according to the report we have been following, has asked the European Union to roll back legislation on single-use plastic.
Exhibit B: Plastics Industry Association, a lobby organisation with headquarters in the United States better known as PLASTICS, urged the US government to “make a public statement on the health and safety benefits in single-use plastic”.
On a smaller scale, we can witness some companies pausing their eco-friendlier initiatives like Starbucks stopping to accept reusable to-go cups.
For all of that let us not forget, as claimed by a couple of studies, plastic is one of the surfaces where the virus will survive for the longest time, so incentivising the population to consume more under the pretence is safer and sanitary-wise more secure than other materials, not only it is misleading but also dangerous. Besides, when you think about it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Types of Masks
There are many types of disposal masks available out there. Surgical, N95, N99, N100; you name it and there is probably someone selling it. Nonetheless, they all have the same key purpose, filtrate the air you breathe thus leaving the virus elsewhere therefore keeping you COVID-19 free.
Some disposal face masks have softer features, others are harsher and not so kind to your skin. Yet, they look like they are made of some sort of fabric that you cannot really tell what it truly is. Is it cotton? Is it a blend of cotton and something else? What are disposal face masks actually made of?
The shorter answer to those questions would be that they are made of plastic. Surprised?
The longer version would be: they are made from nonwoven materials such as polypropylene, polyurethane, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate or polyethylene. Though the most popular of those materials used in the manufacture of face masks is polypropylene.
The average surgical face mask, we have all grown to see, consists of three layers:
an inner layer that absorbs moisture (soft fibres)
a middle layer (filter), and
an outer layer (which is water-resistant and usually blue).
In addition, they will have a:
nose strip made of aluminium, galvanised iron or steel, and a
set of ties or elastic ear loops, so you can adjust the mask.
At this moment in time, you might be thinking that in addition to the littering what are the other big issues incorrectly discarded disposal face masks will have on the environment, and subsequently on us.
Well, let us tell you that now it’s when the going gets tough, so to speak. Sadly, that’s all the time we have for this week.
Stay tuned for next week...